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December 6th, 2010 / 10:03 pm
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A Bit of a Follow Up

It is difficult to talk about race and stressful and awkward and exhausting. To my mind, one of the reasons these conversations are so difficult, particularly between white people and people of color, is because, so often, white people question concerns raised as if the question is not “how do we solve this problem,” but rather, “does this problem exist.”  This is not a debate about whether there are racial and class (and gender and sexuality) disparities in publishing. These disparities exist whether you (choose to) see them or not. Instead these kinds of discussions are intended to function like a magnifying glass on a problem so big it should not require a magnifying glass.

And yet, the magnifying glass is clearly needed.

You want proof. You want evidence that publishing is biased where race is concerned. The world is biased so it should not be surprising, then, that the the publishing industry is biased. Are things better than they were 50 years ago? Of course. Are things okay? No. This problem neither begins nor ends with publishing. The problem neither begins nor ends with Best American Short Stories which draws its work from literary magazines which draw their work from the writers who submit and there are a whole lot of factors contributing to who is writing, where they are sending that work, whether that work is getting published before we can even talk about what’s being included in the “Best of” anthologies. This is a problem, that, as commenters noted in my previous post, is also an issue of class and the educational system that is failing so many people. It is an issue of who has the luxury of the time to write and send their work out. That doesn’t mean the absence of diversity in an anthology like BASS is inconsequential. That collection represents the “best” and most prestigious literary magazines in the country and so if there is little diversity in BASS, there is little diversity in the most influential literary magazines where most of us hope to someday be published.

Issues of race, racism, diversity and equality are issues we’ve been dealing with for more than 200 years. As long as there is difference, there will be disparity. You want statistics and to feel like this is an issue you should care about because sometimes, you just don’t. That’s fine. There are lots of important things I don’t care about either. Honestly, I don’t care if you care or not. Whether or not you care has no impact on the existence and severity of the problem.

The discussion in my previous post has been really interesting and multi-faceted. As these discussions tend to go, people got heated. I got heated. I used my favorite word (fuck) a few times. I will get heated again. This issue matters to me. That this issue matters, however, doesn’t mean this is strictly an emotional issue and to suggest that demeans the discussion. Emotions are involved but there is far more at stake. One of the points raised was that this issue wasn’t as serious as some of the global concerns people around the world are facing. No one is asserting that. At the same time, there’s little point in playing Oppression Olympics, or in saying, well, at least we’re not enslaved, working in conflict diamond mines in Africa. You simply cannot make such comparisons. It’s absurd. Everyone has some kind of privilege and acknowledging that things are still fucked up doesn’t deny those privileges. Saying disparities exist for writers of color does not negate that publishing, in general, is difficult for all writers, particularly given the current climate in publishing.

Discussing these issues is not complaining. When I say, “God, I’ve had a submission out at The Eternity Review for 434 days,” I am complaining. When I say, “I feel a profound sense of absence,” while reading Best American Short Stories, I am using my magnifying glass. Raising these issues doesn’t mean I feel particularly oppressed but it is, nonetheless, an acknowledgment that there are barriers writers of color face that white writers never will. As a writer of color, you have to worry about whether or not there is a readership for your work because many people believe that white people simply aren’t interested in reading about people of color. If you write about people of color, some editors want you to write about people of color in very specific and stereotypical ways because they’re simply not interested in those stories that diverge from the cultural narratives most publishers are comfortable with. Oftentimes, editors aren’t interested in stories where people of color are doing the same things white people are doing in their stories–dealing with life, love, sex, marriage, death, ennui, whatever. They prefer the tragic pornographic narratives and so sometimes, some of us play that game because that’s just the way it is. Anytime you achieve even a little bit of success there’s going to be someone who suggests you earned that success because you’re a person of color (or a woman, or both). Even though you might know you achieved your success because you’re awesome, because you worked hard for years, because you beat down doors until one fell down, you are stuck with the niggling doubt that they’re right. You worry that everyone thinks that way so you can never really enjoy your success, you always push yourself to do better, to do more, to be the best, to be so good they have to stop saying it’s just because you’re a person of color. It is exhausting. Some of the comments in the previous thread certainly bear this out. Anyway, I don’t say this to paint a tragic portrait of the writer of color. We’re fine. And people from other groups certainly have their litany of struggles. Life is hard. Life is hard for all of us. For some, though, some of the factors contributing to that hardness are so deeply embedded within certain institutions as to feel insurmountable.

I wish there were statistics on the number of books being published by writers of color, the advances writers of color are being paid, how those books sell, etc. Maybe someday, someone will do for people of color what VIDA is doing for women. Maybe this organization exists and I simply don’t know about it. I wish there were a way to truly prove what I know to be true, but there isn’t and I don’t have the time to compile that information, nor should I have to. If you really care, do the work to learn about what the publishing industry is like for people of color. Stop feeling defensive. Unless you work for a major publisher or one of the magazines represented by BASS, this isn’t about you, and even then, this is still not really about you. This is bigger than that.

In some ways, this is a matter of faith. You have to accept that these imbalances exist and that when people like me raise the issue, it’s not to make anyone feel guilty or uncomfortable or to say, “woe is me” or to deny your realities. It’s to say, this issue is on my mind and this issue is one I deal with or that people who look like me deal with to one extent or another.

Still, for those of you who want proof that race is a real problem in publishing, here are a few examples gathered from a very cursory Google search I did between classes today using the search terms racism + publishing + statistics.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has compiled some statistics about the number of books by and about people of color. In 2009, 1.6% of children’s books were written by people of color. That’s pretty horrifying.

In 2010, 41 (or 1.4% ) of the YA Books published, out of the approx. 3000 published, were written by black authors. The situation is even more ridiculous for Latino authors, with only 16 (.5%) YA titles published in 2010. Twenty-two percent of all children in the US are Latino. Imbalance? Yes.

Most of 2009, the science fiction/fantasy community was embroiled in a contentious debate about race that was so extensive and ongoing that it even got its own name and wiki: RaceFail, but hey, at least the SF/F community is talking about these issues which cannot be said for other writing communities.

Sometimes, people write books where the protagonist is black and white person is put on the cover anyway because hey, that will sell more books. They call this white washing and publishers actually think this is an acceptable practice.

I could list links about the many, many ways racism pervades publishing all day but students are actually stopping by for office hours. This isn’t incontrovertible scientific evidence but it should be enough for you to get the gist.

Ultimately, people who don’t want to be convinced that this matters won’t be convinced that this matters, but evidence is all around us and either you choose to see it or you don’t. I don’t have answers. I wish I did but I would like to think we can try to reach for answers and solutions. In the future, I’ll definitely post about some ideas I have about making things better. If you have ideas and want to do a post on this topic, just get in touch. Finally, I hope we can continue to talk about race, gender, and class alongside all the other interesting things we talk about here (books, submission fees, Barry Hannah, DFW, rejection, hip hop, massive people, JIMMY CHEN), even if we disagree. I leave you with Louis C.K. on The Tonight Show. All three clips are worth watching.

P.S. Here are some nice resources about reading and writing diversity.

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